Still More Lessons Learned from Kayaking

We’ve just returned from our 14th major kayaking trip, and I was struck by the harmony of our group. In fact, the three best groups we’ve enjoyed paddling with all were on trips with one outfitter – clearly he [and his partner for Italian trips] know something about group dynamics. Effective facilitation of classroom communities seems critical to learning, so I asked them their secrets.

Our American outfitter articulated specific strategies he used. “I’m always scanning the group, even as I’m listening to one person in particular, checking in on where they are and how they’re feeling,” he began. “When I’m talking with someone who’s sitting down, I sit down and mirror their body language… sometimes guides stand over people and intimidate them without realizing it.” When pushed, he acknowledged that they always had the details well-covered, which makes clients feel secure. They sought natural times for bonding over food and drink, avoiding contrived icebreakers. And they worked on being flexible to meet a variety of needs, like the time they provided a van for four of us who needed to avoid the extremely steep mountain hike to a church.

His Italian counterpart suggested that it just happened naturally, but another client and I agree: when he sees someone who seems aside from the group, he naturally draws them in. “Come, sit,” he’ll say with his welcoming smile and arm out. Gregarious by nature, he intuitively pulls people into the conversation. An excellent paddling coach, he identifies where people are in their skills and finds teachable moments to help them improve. And he acknowledges that improvement with genuine praise.

Both men make sure we have excellent equipment, delicious food and drink, and natural chances to bond. They plan for every contingency – not just a plan B but a C and a D and so on. When the weather turned hostile on our second-to-last day, they identified a group who wanted to go up the mountain in ski-type gondolas and a different group of hard-core paddlers – we all got our first choice. When the rains came the final day, they arranged a visit to a castle with a fascinating doll and toy museum and a spectacular view. We’re so impressed with the way they run their trips that we go to them for all of our international kayaking now.

What makes these guides so successful is the same set of skills that matter for classroom teachers. Highly effective teachers:

  • Create genuine opportunities for building classroom communities
  • Constantly scan learners for informal feedback and signals
  • Offer flexibility based on ongoing assessment of both individual and group progress
  • Look for ways to meet varying levels of skill and help different learners grow
  • Find teachable moments and capitalize on them
  • Create fun opportunities for people to share
  • Draw learners in and help everyone be part of the group
  • Have back-up plans for unexpected events
  • Celebrate learners’ successes

This last trip offered not only a great communal kayaking experience, but also an epiphany about the universal parallels of good coaching, regardless of the setting. If my student teachers and the young teachers I mentored could have observed these two men at work, they might have made giant